Iraq's current system of democracy is hardwired for sectarianism, but its discontents suffer without prejudice.
As the haggling, horse-trading and negotiations over the formation of the new Iraqi government continues, many Iraqis are again revisiting the question of the government’s utility, whether it serves the people, and when it will start achieving the results it keeps on touting.
Iraq’s so-called democracy has been in place since 2003, yet Iraqis are mired in poverty, suffering under one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet, and are less secure and educated than they ever were under the iron-fisted Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
In a country where even Saddam’s rule might look like a better alternative than the Frankenstein democracy introduced by the US-led invasion, it is high time for Iraq’s sectarian political system to be completely overhauled.
Sectarian governance is no governance at all
Following the collapse of Saddam’s regime and the illegal occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies in 2003, the country witnessed a complete change in how it was governed. However, some striking parallels with the dictatorial system that preceded the new parliamentary democracy remained.
First, the key positions of government were divided along ethno-sectarian lines. The prime minister was expected to be a Shia Arab, the president a Kurd, and the parliamentary speaker a Sunni Arab.
This was ostensibly done to make sure that there was full participation of the various main components of modern Iraq. However, such a system that includes a high level of apportioning of major posts by default has division hardwired into it. In other words, it did not particularly matter which party or bloc won in any given election as the ethno-sectarian divisions would ensure that any future parliamentary and government make up would be negotiated over to ensure an acceptable enough candidate for each of the higher offices would be put forward.
Such a system is inherently unstable, and can lead to months of negotiations while the country grinds to a halt.
Elections were held in May this year, and almost five months have passed and parliament has only just elected its new speaker, the pro-Iran former governor of Anbar governorate Mohammed al-Halbusi. They have yet to elect who the largely ceremonial president will be, and many of the major blocs are seeking to topple caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rather than allow him to serve a second term.
The system is also fundamentally corrupt.
Iraq’s High Electoral Committee, the body appointed to ensure elections are free, fair, transparent and in accordance with democratic norms and institutions, is at the root of this corruption. Rather than being independent, the members of the committee are instead appointed by Iraq’s main political blocs, and this essentially ensures that the interests of a specific political elite are well looked after by those who are supposed to be the guardians of Iraq’s democracy.
Foreign meddling further muddies the water
Adding to Iraq’s compromised democracy is the direct interference of foreign powers and their influence over the Iraqi political elite. The two main meddlers-in-chief are of course none other than the United States and neighbouring Iran, a former Iraqi rival turned overlord.
The US government has consistently supported the various administrations in Baghdad, despite their clear affiliations to Iran.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who Abadi replaced in 2014 at the height of the Islamic State (Daesh) terror group crisis, was and still is a staunchly pro-Tehran politician. Yet the Obama administration provided him with advanced Hellfire missiles in 2014 to counter advancing Daesh forces even though Maliki was instrumental in violently putting down peaceful protesters who were simply asking not to be targeted due to their religious identity.
Washington’s support is due to many reasons, but perhaps one of the biggest is because it was the United States that created Iraq’s democracy and if it fails, it is evidence that America was wrong to invade Iraq.
Iran happily profited from the US’ willingness to keep standing by successive Iraqi administrations, as most of those in power today were at one point harboured and incubated by Tehran. Both Abadi and Maliki hail from the Dawa Party, a group that conducted various terror attacks across Iraq and the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Iran has been able to use Iraq as the linchpin for its regional ambitions, directly influencing the outcome of the ill-fated Syrian revolt against one Baathist Tehran seems to love: President Bashar al-Assad.
Iraq was a staging ground for the movement of men, money and arms into Syria, with many Iraqi Shia militant groups loyal to Iran actively fighting against anti-Assad Syrians.
Revisiting the nation-state
Although the situation in Iraq is bleak, it is not entirely hopeless. The elections in May were actually boycotted by a significant number of Iraqis, leading to a paltry and all-time low turnout of just 44.5 percent.
Iraqis are expressing their anger at the sectarian administrations that have come to dominate Baghdad, and who have whipped up sectarian hatred to turn Iraqis against one another.
Protests continue in Basra, with predominantly Shia Arab demonstrators calling for much the same today as their Sunni Arab countrymen called for yesterday. The Iraqi street is waking up to the fact that whether it is Mosul or Basra, Ramadi or Nasiriyah, Iraqis of all ethno-sectarian backgrounds everywhere are bearing the weight of a burdensome, corrupt and often violently sectarian system that is tearing their country apart.
Once cross-sectarian platforms begin to take root and Iraqis from various regions begin to communicate, get together, share their pain and pride with one another, we may be able to see a grassroots movement take shape to challenge the status quo.
However, and sadly, this will be many years in the making, so it would be wise to expect Iraq to continue on its current and tragic trajectory.
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